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Navigating Multiple Universes, Discovering My Life Purpose

Updated: Apr 4

I made up my mind to become a life purpose coach in December 2023. Kind of. The reality is that I've been working toward this life pivot since at least May 2021.

On May 10 of that year, a couple hours before presenting a paper at a virtual roundtable for the 56th International Congress on Medieval Studies from my campus office, I received a phone call from my OBGYN informing me that recent test results indicated that I had stage one endometrial cancer. On t.v. and in the movies, they always tell people to sit down for bad news, but if I'm on the phone, I'm pacing. I paced every available inch of floor space in my institutional, furniture-stuffed, 10 x 10 room, trying to process the phrases "Not the results I was expecting; I was surprised," "we need to operate soon," "hysterectomy," "here are some dates and the name of the surgeon who will be completing your procedure." Then: "curable." As I joined the Zoom room for my COVID-era conference presentation, I latched on to this final word. I kept my composure. I delieverd my research with clarity and even a touch of humor. And then I broke down.


Over the following weeks, I operated in two universes. In one, I finished teaching a semester of hybrid English classes at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse and prepared an eight-week online summer course. In the other, I attended a series of doctors appointnments and received yet another surprise phone call from my OBGYN's office. A second review of my scans revealed microscopic cervical involvement of my cancer, which was now reclassed as stage two, meaning I would need a more radical complete hysterectomy with removal of sentinal lymph nodes, followed by radiation therapy (RT). I was also given the option of participating in an experimental immuno-therapy study, but the time commitment of English professing in Universe One meant that the time commitment of scientific research in Universe Two had to be a hard pass.

Not that I wasn't interested! I was a candidate for the study because family history and the biopsy of my uterine cells revealed the potential of Lynch Syndrome, a genetic syndrome that predisposes those who have it to certain cancers, including, primarily, endometrial and colon cancers. Genetic testing confirmed the biopsy results. I had Lynch. I was now the lucky recipient of annual colonoscopies and regular dermatological scans (skin cancer being another common Lynch cancer) in addition to my three-month schedule of post-surgical and RT follow-ups.

Today, I am happy to report that the surgery and profalactic RT were successful. I am currently cancer-free and am now on a six-month schedule for gynocological cancer screenings and a two-year colonoscopy cycle (woohoo!). The dermatological check was a one-off; I only need to go back if anything new emerges.

Still, that four months from initial diagnosis to refined diagnosis to surgery, recovery, and RT was life-changing--and life-affirming. I awoke from the mental, physical, and emotional daze of all that was Universe Two to the realization that I needed to make some changes. As cliché as it may sound, my cancer diagnosis led me to value life more and to want more out of it. At least most of the time.

I awoke from the mental, physical, and emotional daze of all that was Universe Two to the realization that I needed to make some changes.

I started to lean into the mindfulness training I'd already undertaken as part of my research into deep reading (contemplation helps deepen reading!). I utilized skills developed in a three-day virtual silent retreat I attended through the Zen Life and Meditation Center in Chicago by meditating regularly, and deeply, on my life and sense of self. I created what I came to call my "Postcard Project," identifying self-limiting beliefs I had carried for many years and positive reframings I intended to adopt moving forward, writing those beliefs and reframings on postcards, and writing my realizations about them. (More on the Postcard Project later!) I learned many things about myself, especially about my need for further change (beyond the absence of a uterus) if I was to live authentically and intentionally.

Among those necessary changes, which further posts will discuss in more detail, included a divorce from my husband of 24 years and being honest with my devout Lutheran family about my spiritual beliefs. By sharing my Postcard Project, I "came out" as unhappy in my marriage and no longer identifying as a Christian. Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT), followed by an eleven-month Applied Compassion Training (ACT) program, offered through Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Training and Education (CCARE), enabled me to approach both my divorce and the revelation about my spirituality with grace and compassion, recognizing ways to hold space for those on the other side of my choices who would be impacted by them, while also maintining my boundaries and authenticity through self-compassion.

This brings me to last December. Almost. Bringing mindfulness practices, and now compassion practice and emphasis into my classrooms led me down a path I would not have anticipated when I started my deep reading research four years ago. As I've witnessed the young adults in my classrooms increasingly struggle with anxiety, depression, and uncertainty in a post-COVID world that is politically and socially divided, econmically unstable, and warming, I've recognized the value in teaching them strategies for reducing stress and recognizing and addressing their own suffering, as well as the suffering of those around them. Addressing compassion head-on and highlighting the courage and wisdom it requires of us has enabled me to encourage students to consider ways of living--and even of making a living--that could bring purpose to the forefront.

I started to recognize how my mindfulness and compassion training, paired with my personal experiences, were valuable resources to share with others.

I started to think that my current approach to teaching was becoming increasingly less disciplinarily "professorial" (I'm a medievalist in literary and cultural studies) and more life-purpose focused. I started to wonder how to bring purpose more to the forefront of my own life. I started to question the potential of moving into counseling. I started to realize that I couldn't afford an MA program in counseling. I started to recognize how my mindfulness and compassion training, paired with my personal experiences, were valuable resources to share with others. I started to identify myself as a coach. So, in December 2023, I registered for a certification course, offered by the IAPRC through one of my UW System sister schools, in Professional Life Coaching, which I hope to finish in June. Universe Three has opened its door.

As a coach, my goals are aligned with my future clients': to help them recognize where their lives could be more meaning-full, purpose-full, and compassion-full. Perhaps my story resonates with you. If so, take my hand. Let's explore this Universe together!

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This is an exciting new direction. Very cool how you came through a scary diagnosis w renewed enthusiasm.

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